The thing called Holly was finally ready to open the door. She laid a hand on the knob and turned it clockwise.
The door stopped flashing. For the ten millennia she’d stood before it, its fickle surface had appeared as steel, water, sky…now it settled into a steely set of vertical bars, like the entrance to a jail cell. Holly pushed it forward and stepped through.
The area inside was open and spacious. Large clay tiles coated the floor. Paintings and plants were arranged throughout, and a warm glow suffused the air, courtesy of recessed lighting in the smooth white ceiling. A soothing trickle caressed her ears; it came from a miniature waterfall built into the wall.
Everything was coming back; she was Holly fucking Dent. A teen-queen cheerleader, destined to change the world through her will alone. She would gain entrance to an Ivy League school, become a CEO, transition into politics, and win the presidency. Not for power, but as a trophy. To show everyone who’d fucked with her she could do what she wanted, be who she wanted, and fuck anyone who didn’t agree because she was Holly Fucking De—
She cleared the corner, and the center of the room came into focus. There were two wooden chairs facing across from each other, with a round-topped coffee table situated between them. On the rightmost chair was a white-haired man, dressed in elegant, fantasy-style clothing: a tasteful mix of flowing grays and muted whites, like something made for one of those dorky-ass Elves from the Lord of the Rings movies. His right leg was folded over his left—a “smart man’s” sitting posture. Under other circumstances, Holly would have thought it effeminate and weak, but somehow, he still seemed masculine.
“Please,” he repeated. “Sit.” He extended a hand, palm up, toward the chair across from him.
She made her way forward and sat slowly, carefully looking from side to side. Her guarded manner elicited a chuckle from the white-haired stranger.
“This isn’t a trap.”
“How would I know?”
“You wouldn’t.” He shrugged. “You have to have faith.”
Holly snorted. “I have faith in myself, motherfucker.”
The stranger sighed. “I’m pretty sure I know what you’ll do, but nevertheless—I’m still obligated to give you a choice.”
“Yeah?” Holly became dimly aware of her body growing younger; she was no longer a withered old man; she was the dangerous barbarian-king she’d first inhabited. “Maybe I’m the one who gives you a choice.”
The stranger arched an eyebrow. “Which would be?”
“Whether or not you keep your limbs. Depending on if you help me or not.”
The stranger sounded a little sad. “Just what I expected.”
“You have something I want.” Holly gave him a menacing stare.
“That I do.” The stranger regarded her with a dispassionate gaze.
“Give it to me. Or I swear to Christ I’ll—”
The stranger laughed. “That’s the last person you should swear to; she’s on my side.
Holly scoffed. “ ‘She?’ Maybe you haven’t heard, but the greatest scammer in all of history is packing meat between his l—”
He flapped his hand dismissively. “It’s She. Another story for another time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What’s your name?”
A puff of air blew through his nose—not quite a laugh, but almost.